I’ve always loved those little corners in small bookstores (or even the chains) where the books are prominently placed not because some corporate publisher paid the store a premium, but simply because someone loved the book. Maybe the book was placed as a treasured classic that the person returned to time and time again, or chosen in a moment of temporary infatuation, but in either case, the book was placed there because of a passion for something that had made a difference for someone. I can’t count the number of times I’ve discovered a new title or author because of one of those little end cap statements of personality.
The idea got me thinking what would go on my shelf. I’m not talking about my list of all time favorite books (Tolstoy, Neruda and Saramago might sweep the field there), but the ones that are floating around my consciousness now, sometimes inspiring, sometimes edifying, and even occasionally nagging.
So, that’s the challenge. What books would you recommend, as a statement of what you love and what you’re thinking about?
Richard Yates gets two spots on my list of the moment. Don’t let the mediocre film adaptation of Revolutionary Road fool you; Yates was a brilliant writer. The Easter Parade is just a perfect little novel, one that may have been the most depressing, insightful book I have read in a long time. Yates writes about the despair of mundane lives and ordinary people, tackling the lies that sustain, even as they destroy us. Eleven Kind of Loneliness explores similar themes, with a series of tightly drawn stories about often thoroughly unlikeable people whose secret hearts may not differ greatly from our own. “ A Really Good Jazz Piano” and “The B.A.R. Man” are real standouts in the collection.
In my seventh year of teaching it, just when I felt a bit tired of reading the same novel, I came across this highlighted, underlined in three colors, marked with stars section of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I remembered why I love it so much:
But deep down you come to suspect that you’re yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who through you and unseeingly. That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the trip to the chamber with the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean–only it’s worse because you continue stupidly to live. But live you must, and you can either make passive love to your sickness or burn it out and go to the next conflicting phase.
It’s a classic that everyone should read.
I came to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma a little late, but just finished this thought-provoking title. Pollan combines philosophy, culinary history, basic science and ethics with a great personal narrative that will force any reader to think about the choices we make when we eat.
Finally, I am just beginning to re-read one of my favorite books of the past ten years, Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The opening prologue about Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” may be some of the finest writing I have ever experienced, and the novel that follows is maddening, dense, complex, and incredibly beautiful. I may never fully understand DeLillo;s work, but I’m willing to give it another try every four or five years.